Before discussing what Joseph knew, we should perhaps begin by considering what we know about Joseph. Despite the fact that we tend to assume we know very little, we may be surprised to discover how much in fact we do know. This is even more surprising when we consider that in the entire scriptural narrative, Joseph never says a word.
“And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16).
Summary of the Text
Matthew gives us an account of the genealogy of Joseph, descended from David, meaning that Christ’s covenantal lineage was Davidic, as well as His physical lineage (through Mary) being also, as is likely, Davidic. The fact that genealogies are given the place they have in Scripture should indicate to us that they are important, and not given to us so that we might have occasion to roll our eyes at all the begats.
What We Know
We know that Joseph’s father was a man named Jacob (Matt. 1:16). We know that Joseph was of the royal Davidic line (Matt. 1:6). Luke makes a point of telling us this (Luke 1:27), just as the angel had called Joseph a son of the house of David. We know that Joseph was a good man, both righteous and merciful (Matt. 1:19). We know that he was a prophet—an angel appeared to him in a dream and gave him a word from God (Matt. 1:20). We know that Joseph was an obedient man—when he woke from sleep, he did just what the angel had commanded him in that dream (Matt. 1:24). When the Lord’s life was in danger, God entrusted the protection of the Messiah to Joseph, sending an angelic warning in a second dream (Matt. 2:13). God led that family through the head of the family. After Herod died, God gave Joseph a third dream (Matt. 2:19). We know that the legal and covenantal lineage of Jesus was reckoned through Joseph, because that is how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4), and the prophet had insisted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
When the shepherds came, they found Joseph together with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:16). We know that Joseph was diligent to keep the law (Luke 2:27). When Simeon blessed Jesus, Mary and Joseph together marveled at what was said (Luke 2:33). Given what they heard from Simeon and Anna (and from Elizabeth, and from Mary herself), they knew a great deal. And don’t forget the shepherds and the wise men. They knew something huge was up. Remember that Joseph was the second person on earth to believe in the virgin birth, Mary being the first and she almost doesn’t count.
We think we know that Joseph was a carpenter, which he might have been (Matt. 13:55). In the parallel account in Mark (Mark 6:3), Jesus Himself is called a carpenter. The word in both occasions is tekton. The word can refer to a swinger of hammers, but it could also mean builder (as in, contractor), or even architect. In fact, our word architect comes from this word—archon + tekton. We know that whatever business he had, it wasn’t off the ground yet when Jesus was born. The offering they presented at the Temple for Jesus was two turtledoves, the offering available for poor people (Luke 2:24). This also may have had something to do with the “newlywed” adventure they had in Bethlehem, when they couldn’t get a room in an inn.
Joseph lived long enough to be present when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:43), and we know that he is absent from the narrative after that. At the same time, we may infer from the number of Christ’s siblings that Joseph lived well past the Lord’s twelfth birthday. Jesus was the eldest of at least seven, which normally wouldn’t fit within twelve years (Mark 6:13).
The name Joseph means God will increase, like the Puritan name Increase Mather. It is a name that denotes blessing and abundance. Joseph of the Old Testament sheds some light on Joseph, the husband of Mary. For example, both men shared a name, and both of their fathers shared the name of Jacob (Gen. 30:23-24; Matt. 1:16). Rachel named Joseph Increase because that is what she was looking for—and received in the birth of Benjamin. The one through whom all God’s promises would come to fruition and increase, Mary, was protected and cared for by a man named Increase. Both Josephs had prophetic dreams. Both Josephs were righteous men. Both were connected in some way to a sexual scandal involving false accusation. Both of them were a wonderful combination of integrity and compassion. Both went down into Egypt and were thereby means of saving their respective families. Both were used by God to provide for a starving world.
Just and Merciful
In the Scriptures, justice and mercy are not at odds with each other. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).
In Deuteronomy 22:23-24, we are given the death penalty for a betrothed woman who committed adultery. Such commandments were never meant to be applied woodenly, but rather with a firm grasp of the principles involved. For example, consider what the law says about the city limits. Now, under the rule of the Romans, it would not be possible for the Jews to apply such a law. One of the things we see in the New Testament is the use of the ultimate penalty from another government in lieu of the one excluded by an unbelieving government. And thus it is we see Paul requiring excommunication at Corinth, while citing this and four other places that required execution. In the same way, a family could apply disinheritance or divorce. This is something that Joseph is resolved to do.
But we are told something else. We are told that Joseph had a tender heart (Matt. 1:19), and that this was an example of his commitment to justice. Joseph, we are told was a just and righteous man, and because of this, he was resolved to do the right thing, but without humiliating Mary publicly. We know that Jesus grew up in a home that could not have seen Joseph as one of the men with stones in the famous incident of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:7).
What Joseph Knew
We may presume that what Joseph marveled at was part of what he knew. At a bare minimum, Joseph knew that the salvation of Jews and Gentiles both was growing up in his home. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
And here we find our gospel conclusion.